Celebrities Are Inspiring, How Do Career Women Handle Announcing Breast Cancer?

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“I feel like such a heavy weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I’ve been keeping this secret from a lot of dear friends for a while now and it’s nice to get it out there and not hide anymore….There was a long period of time where I thought I was going to hide this from everyone, that I didn’t need to tell anyone. And then as time went by, I would see friends of mine that didn’t know, and I would think, ‘God, I wish I could let her know what I’m going through,’ so that she goes and gets checked.”

E! News host Giuliana Rancic said this on Monday’s E! News to longtime friend and co-anchor Ryan Seacrest after she had announced that she has early stages of breast cancer on The Today Show. Rancic said she was a wreck before she told the world about her condition and admitted that the decision to go public was a difficult one. But the thought of all the women she could inspire to go get tested and educated compelled her to go in front of the cameras. But for women who don’t have the extra incentive of being able to educate thousands of people on this disease as part of their announcement to their company, telling your employer and colleagues that you have breast cancer is a daunting and difficult task.

In 2010, an estimated 207,090 new cases of invasive breast cancer were expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 54,010 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer. With the likelihood that about one in eight women in the United States (12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, it is inevitable that you will work with a woman who goes through this at some point or at least know of someone who does.

Can women ever really prepare for telling the people you work with everyday that you have breast cancer? Carrie Handley, a breast cancer survivor that had a double mastectomy, runs a healthcare IT business with her husband in Waterloo, Canada. She said the most stressful part about telling her clients and colleagues was anticipating their reaction.

“I wanted to get all the different checks and balances so there wouldn’t be a panic about what couldn’t or cant get done now that I was sick. There is a concern if you are any kind of conscientious worker, which most women are, you are worried you are letting somebody down. Either co-workers, your boss, your family because you are not bringing a paycheck in. And I think a lot of women have the thought of ‘This is just so damn inconvenient!’”

Under the ADA, cancer qualifies on a case-by-case basis. The act protects individuals from losing their jobs due to disability and sets guidelines for employers regarding required accommodations. The U.S. EEOC, which enforces the ADA, offers the following example of a woman with breast cancer who would qualify for job protection under the act. The fear of telling your boss though, not out of fear of losing your job as much as the intimacy of the situation, is very stressful, some women who battled cancer said. “Your shield is automatically down. Your personal life has entered the workplace and you can try to be in control of it but it is difficult. Plus talking about it with a man, even a very understanding man, is even more difficult I think,” said one woman who has experienced this in her workplace and chose to remain anonymous.

Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli, Workplace Psychologist said:


But beyond the law, employers should know that when an employee is being treated for cancer, that employee and many other employees are evaluating how the company reacts and conclusions are being drawn about whether the employer is behaving fairly and compassionately. In most cases, it would be strategic for an employer to err on the side of generosity. This is an opportunity for an employer to shine or to disappoint and has long-term repercussions for employee retention and morale.

Dealing with this disease is life altering and then to put complete career interruption on the table too adds a whole other layer. The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans’ survey, which focused on women working with breast cancer, found that employers were typically more than willing to provide accommodations. With regard to scheduling, the survey reported that about 85% allowed an employee with breast cancer to reduce her hours, 79% permitted a flexible schedule, 47% made telecommuting an option for the employee and 62% agreed to short breaks during the day for resting and recovering. But do these women want to or are even able to keep working through their treatment? According to the women we talked to there were good days and bad days but when they could work, it was very comforting.

Crystal Brown Tatum, CEO and President of Crystal Clear Communications, was diagnosed with Stage IIIA breast cancer in 2007 at the age of 35. She considered this time to be the height of her career.


“I underwent surgery, chemo and radiation which was completely exhausting. Although I wanted to work, I was unable to manage large projects but could write press releases on occassion. I begin to instruct my clients on how they could manage their PR in the interim. I found it helpful to attempt to return to life before cancer as much as possible. Half of winning the battle begins with your state of mind. I had already lost my hair. I felt like I needed to hold on to something I could control like my career.”

Carrie said:

“I made it clear to my clients that they could connect with me if there were questions or an urgent issue. My husband [and business partner] would get frustrated sometimes when they did contact me as he was concerned with my health and my recovery. However, I felt that if I could help in a small way, that helped me cope with my situation much more effectively. Cancer can be so isolating. With my weakened immune system, I had to be careful about falling or catching a cold, but this [work] kept me active, connected and in some degree of control of my life. For people with more physical or traveling jobs, I imagine this would be even more of an issue. I really wanted to make sure I healed well so I could go back full time. I needed to make sure I had the energy and stamina to get through a whole day.”

As for processing the fact that your career is going to be disrupted Carrie said, who opted to have three intensive surgeries in close proximity which would mean a year off from work, that whether they realize it or not, women can sometimes make different surgical decisions when faced with the prospect of having to take time away from their job to recuperate.

“You are going to be off work for recuperation. A lot of women can make too quick of a decision here because with some surgeries that can be up to at least six weeks of recovery and six months easy if you have chemo and radiation added to the treatment mix. It is a very difficult decision for women facing the reality of mastectomy. I could have taken a decision, based on my career, to minimize recovery, have a single mastectomy first and then deal with the second mastectomy as needed in the future. It was a decision that saved my life even though I wouldn’t be working for up to a year. It is not a decision every woman is prepared to make. A woman I shared my journey with opted out of the mastectomy right away out of fear of losing the residency she had worked so hard to get.”

There is also the impact of cancer itself on your business. Carrie said, though she is recovery mode now, when she is meeting with clients they often hesitate to sign on with her out of fear that she could get sick again or that they could make her sick if she had too much stress from her work. “I address it full disclosure everytime I speak to a client so it’s not the elephant in the room but I think it can make them anxious.”

As for how you should approach telling your boss and co-workers you have breast cancer, BreastCancer.org has come up with some helpful tips:


  • Have the conversation in a comfortable, yet private area.

  • Talk to your co-workers in smaller groups of one to three people, to make conversation easier.

  • Assure your team of your commitment to your job. Explain that you will do everything in your power to do the best job you can. For example, you can ask someone to handle your duties when you’re not at work and you’ll follow up when you return.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask your co-workers for help and understanding. Explain that you may need some flexibility in your schedule and support in some projects.

  • Explain that you will keep everyone posted on your health as needed. Allow coworkers to ask some questions about your situation — most likely, they care and want to help. At the same time, if they seem to be asking too many questions, let them know that you appreciate their concern, but that you’d like to focus on work.

  • Discuss a possible change in your appearance. You may experience hair loss, for example, if you’ll be having chemotherapy treatments.

On top of battling breast cancer these women are dealing with a lot of other issues stemming from the impact of the disease on their career but what they can do is try to persevere, just as they have in their careers, and get through it. “So that’s my situation. I’m going to survive, I’m going to be just fine, I’m not broken,” said Rancic.

Photo: OtnaYdur/Shutterstock.com

Post from: TheGrindstone

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